What makes a great flashback or flash-forward?

Flashbacks can provide great thematic context. Blades in the Dark does this beautifully in a mechanical way during scores. GMs can also provide hard moves that players can then resist: “you fall down the well.”

My question: What are some other examples of games with scene framing for flashbacks or flash-forwards that feel rich and narratively relevant to the game? What makes a great flashback or flash-forward?


I ask because I am working on a Stonewall RPG about memory and liberation called “Rainbows Forever”. I want to sprinkle the action with intimate memories of the pre-stonewall era and visions of a brighter future, but want these comment upon and influence the “present day” story told at the table. If there are resources I could read, I would be so thankful.

I have also been thinking about Jason Cordova’s “Overscene” and “Echoes in the Dark” mechs as very fruitful soil for providing directorial cuts and connecting events on screen with those offscreen. https://www.gauntlet-rpg.com/blog/design-diary-the-between-01

What do you think?

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There is a book by Linda Aronson called “The 21st Century Screenplay” and it’s about creating non-linear storytelling in films. Not exactly RPG stuff, but you may find it useful.

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Thank you @tomekjmm. I’ll check it out!

My general principle here is that a flashback provides emotional context for current action.

It is used to expose, twist, reveal, or heighten the meaning of something that is happening “on screen”. An easy and obvious example might be: “So you see your old lover, on the other side of the room. Let’s go back in time and see what it was like the last time you saw each other…”

You play out the flashback, and that gives a lot more meaning to the moment we will now “go back to” in real time.

I generally handle flashbacks this way: something in the game would be stronger if it had more emotional impact, or seems like the characters would have reactions to that we, as players, either do not know or do not feel (because we don’t have emotional attachment to them) so we move to a flashback which fills in the necessary information.

It is essentially the same process as asking a revealing or personal question. In this case, the question would be “how do you feel about this person?”, but, instead of simply answering the question, we can play out the scene.

This can be really useful, sometimes, with players who don’t have a ready idea, but like to react to things “in character”. Maybe asking “how do you feel about your mother?” isn’t a very fruitful question for you… well, then, let’s play out a significant moment from your childhood, and you can react in the moment, so that, when we come back to ‘the present’, you’ll have a good basis to make that choice.

With a player like this, simply throwing them into a scene can get them feeling things and defining their character.

In mystery, heist, and suspense genres, flashbacks are also sometimes used to fill in surprising revelations (“but it turned out that the butler had poisoned both cups earlier!”). I find this less fruitful in RPG play, as it can often feel unearned, unfair, or forced. Still, it occasionally has its uses.

In either case, I think the purpose of the flashback is to basically allow the storyteller (in this case, I suppose it’s “the group”) to elide an uninteresting portion of the story. We can go and grab the one specific moment or memory that’s relevant to making our story better, and giving it more context, without having to play out or “watch” all the uninteresting history between the two events. It’s a more economical frame for storytelling, which allows us more nuanced and more detailed, grounded stories within a short timeframe.

The choice for whether the flashback is simply grounding or whether it creates suprising reveals, then, is a technical detail to use as appropriate.

I have less experience with flash-forwards; I think that’s trickier to use in a real-time medium than in, say, film or a book (where you can edit retroactively). Perhaps someone else will have something clever to say there!

There is a very interesting game called “Showdown”, an RPG by Seth Ben-Ezra for two players. In it, you play out the story of a duel between two nemeses. In one sequence of scenes, you play out their climactic battle, moving forwards through time. You alternate these with a sequence of flashbacks, moving backwards through time, which detail their mutual history - as a result, you learn how they first met shortly before the final blow of the duel. Very clever, and works very well! In that game, the dramatic irony and the surprise of the revelations is key: you get to “degrade” your opponent’s character concept by winning the right to tell us how evil, pathetic, or underhanded (for instance) they really are in the flashbacks.

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Oh, and Shakespeare’s daughter is built on flashbacks (mainly) that do precisely that, putting a fact on (emotional, because that’s where the juices are) perspective.

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Thank you so much for your post that goes so in depth and the game reference. I will check out Showdown right now.

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Oo thank you for the Shakespeare’s daughter suggestion DeReel!

My horror game OKULT is very low prep, instead the world is given depth when characters in the present encounter people/places they remember from the past. Then a flashback is played, and only after that it’s possible to interact with the person/place.

It’s not very complicated, but it does offer good value for the effort involved. We’ve had a lot of fun with it.

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“only after that” got me thinking. It’s a detour and an extension.

Flashback are sort of emotional patches. But they have a lot in common with patches affecting Plot consistency and Setting coherence.

Let’s say my PC is a fantasy city cop and it’s all we know about fantasy city cops in this game. Soon, we need to define the PC authority. That’s a sort of Setting patch. Typically here devil is in the details. I see 3 ways to handle this.
Granted : name a domain, grant large authority.
Debated : name factions sharing that interest and find out a modus vivendi.
Prepped : have the details prepped of how the various authorities click and overlap.

What I realized at this point here is this : it’s clearer and safer to have the modes separated. Like, until now I played in between Granted and Debated. Mixing PC goal and success with faction and setting creation is a big order. Done well, it’s a nice marble chocolate cake to bake together, but design-wise, it doesn’t sound wise. So, it looks like having a clear “patching” procedure is what I am advocating for. So that players think of using it a bit before entering a hot narrative segment.

TL;DR : I’d place flashback and other patches a bit before a heated exchange if you like a high engagement conversation style, to preserve it. For GM it means anticipate or be ready to play with contrasts. For design, it means saying to players in advance patches are a type of thing they can do, which Flashbacks do neatly. Why don’t all games have them ?

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Sorry for the 2x post, but I can make the case that I am not the exact same person posting twice, not based on biological evidence, but rather on the content of the post itself :sweat_smile:

That thing I said about “Mixing PC goal and success with faction and setting creation is a big order” and “design-wise, it doesn’t sound wise” well, that’s bulldong. It’s just that some games prioritize an inward, centripete, chronological approach, stating a frame and zooming in on specific actions, which allows for looser authority indications ; while others make more of the mix on the spot and produce material that is outward, centrifuge, retroactive, which requires very tight authority indications (or “Mother May I”-talk, which is in itself a nice safety tool).

Let’s see :
Setting default parameters for room and tunnel size. Having a relationship map.
vs Flashing back to the last time you saw “red shirt X” to inform your relation. Rolling for NPC Reaction.
That sounds like “Prior Prep” vs “Instant Improv”

Darn, I’d wished that’d map to tradgame / storygame 1:1 ! Next time, for sure… :rofl: Well… come to think of it, it probably interferes somehow with “scene based” game structure (a majority of games out of the Forge) vs “dramatic action/goal based” game structure (a majority of older games). Because “Instant Improv” looks pretty much like “Scene structured”. If someone has links like that or keywords about that, I’d gladly follow the tracks.

Applying that to OP : decide if what you want is the retroactive input (a die roll on the right table can be enough = input randomness for depth make-believe) or if you need the change in rhythm and tone (then a “richer” narrative segment is appropriate to get “real” depth). Like so.

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Once ran a con scenario based almost entirely around flashbacks (to try bring a sense of Elven deep time into a 3 hour game session). So had to work out how to make flashbacks relevant and interesting (since the characters know everything that happens before it starts, right?).

We decided the key thing would be how it felt and what the event meant to us in the present of the game.

So when somebody called for a flashback scene, we’d decide where it happened, who was there, what took place and, given that, what question we want to find out.

(Also added a mechanical role for players that weren’t in the scene).

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